There comes a point in every long project where you’re too far from the beginning to stop and too far from the end to go on.
You have a plan. You work to execute your plan and somehow you’re still no closer to that distant goal you set. You’re tired and more than that, you’re discouraged. Is it all going to be worth it in the end? You’re not sure any more.
Finishing a novel, hitting a target weight, or remodelling a home are examples of long term endeavours that are definitely worthwhile. Yet many of us run out of steam, part-way to victory.
I found myself in this position with my writing goals. Ideas ran dry, motivation deserted me, and facing the blank page morphed from exciting possibility to anxious dread.
I needed something different.
By knowing the large you know the small; and from the shallow you reach the deep.
Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings
It might seem at first sight that the simplest tasks are very different from complex ones. But even making a sandwich involves weighing alternatives, assessing and acquiring materials, and execution of linked processes. The difference is that success is practically assured and most importantly, within easy reach.
Large and small share the same DNA.
So turn away from your big project and do something small, trivial even. It must be easy to complete and yield a tangible result. By completing a task with a finished product, you reinforce feelings of competence. A small win becomes the building block for a bigger effort and a bigger win.
This isn’t procrastination. Procrastination is unfocused avoidance. This is deliberate. This is trimming the rudder, a small action that points you more directly at the goal. The process of achieving a minor win makes the large win more likely by boosting your confidence.
The Future Looks Bright
How does this work in practice? Here are two examples from gardening and writing.
When we moved to our current home we acquired a large grassed space at the back. I wanted a garden. But even planning the garden, let alone executing all the changes needed, was overwhelming. And we had no money and limited time.
So instead I planted flower bulbs, five or ten at a time. This small job fitted between childcare and working and cost little. It was a microcosm of the larger space in planning, preparation, feeding, and planting.
At this point with my novel, I’d write something else. Song lyrics and poetry, haiku if I wanted a really quick win. A short story for my writing group which ended up in our anthology. Some of these pieces have never been shared, but that isn’t the point. The point is to recalibrate, compress the task of writing into a smaller space and to reach the end.
No matter how detailed, or how loose, start with a plan. You cannot reach the destination without a goal and at least a few markers set along the way.
“bury the treasure well”
The plot twist, the clues, Chekhov’s gun. They must be planted ahead of time, before anyone realises, while they are thinking of something else.
You of course, are following the plan. You know what is coming.
“right plant, right place”
You may fall in love with something gorgeous.
If it does not fit, you must either provide the right conditions for it, or put it somewhere else. Remember my space pirate last week? He awaits the right plot.
You may create beautiful prose, so lovely you weep tears of joy when you read it back. You need not kill your darling, this post tells you what I do with mine. Nothing wasted, in a garden as in writing.
“subtlety is underrated”
A bold swathe of colour is lovely to see, but hard to pull off in a garden. It can also leave the plot looking a bit bare in other times and places. It works, if well supported by action elsewhere. Whether writing or gardening, a single bravura flowerbed or scene is not enough to sustain interest.
A quiet gradation with one plant leading gently to another can have great impact, as well as ending a long way from the starting point without jarring. Not everyone will appreciate the thought behind it. But some will, and it is satisfying to add another layer of meaning, to challenge your own skills.
“enjoy your harvest”
My garden’s variety of plants and purposes leads to this. Fruits and vegetables to savour, knowledge for next season, compost made from those that didn’t make it.
My story, long or short, leads to this. Plots, subplots, character arcs, the seeds of a sequel, must all culminate in a satisfying conclusion.
It’s hard work, but let’s not forget why we do it.
Whether you are a fiction writer or a gardener, you must tend your plot. The more I write, the more I find parallels between my two loves, writing and gardening.
1 Find your plot
When we moved to our house, there was a huge lawn, some mature trees, but no garden at all. Even though we had less than no money, busy jobs, two children under three, and no family to help, I resolved to make a garden. I needed a place to wander around, to dig, to dream.
So naturally, I invested money I didn’t really have to get experts in and draw up a plan. Two plans, in fact. We combined the best of both. Yes, I was laughed at by those who didn’t understand why I then planted four saplings in the middle of the lawn.
I smiled to myself. I knew they were the basis of the secret garden. What secret? The doubters had to wait and see.
Gardens are particular to their position. I could plant anything here, but some will do well and some are definitely not suitable. I can’t grow oranges outside, but there are lots of other fruits that will thrive.
With a story, have some kind of outline and plan. Plant your flag at The End and work towards it, with as much detail as you wish. Plotter? Lots of details. Pantser like me? Vague notions contained within a loose overall feel.
The genre is the location where you will plant your story. Genre has rules about what can be included. You can break the rules, of course. You can add things that are not native to the genre, or mix genres. But it will need more work and clever execution to pull it off.
2 Do the heavy lifting first
It saves time in the end. Oh it’s tiresome, pulling nettles, raking out rocks, making compost bins. But future you will thank present you for doing it. Afterwards it will be much easier to get on with what you really want, which is creating.
If you don’t get that weed out now, it will have sturdy roots that weave through your precious plants. It may even choke them. Remember your ultimate goal, as you dig through heavy clay soil in the rain. Put anything you will need later in a holding bed.
Make sure that your story idea will really fit the location. Some stories are short, some are novels, and some are operatic, requiring a huge space to bloom fully.
Composting in this context, is letting all those little flakes and fragments settle in your subconscious while you get on with something else. Not every idea will find a place, but capture them and have them ready if needed. Notes are your friend, however you prefer to keep them.
Weeding out is only for the big things at this point. You might have a character in mind, but a space pirate does not belong in a light contemporary romance. Probably.
3 Prepare well
Now there is some idea of scope. A clear plot, a plan of some sort. The next step is research. What direction is the prevailing wind? Where are the shady, dry, wet or sunny spots? What plants are your favourites? Which plants will do best in which situation? It’s time to make some choices.
Those choices will shape the overall feel of the garden. Start with the bigger, more structural things. Allow enough space for each to fill out. Small plants can come later, when things are more developed.
If you’re a pantser, know that you might not have everything finalised, and that’s fine. Start with the main characters and the main plot points, and sketch out how they all hand together. Note any gaps.
Read up on 18th century lace production, or space ship propulsion, or whatever your story needs. If you have subplots, make sure they are included. They are your second layer, benefiting from the first layer and supporting it.
Compost is equivalent to backstory. A fertile bed in which to grow your characters and nourish their roots. But no-one wants to see it, so it has to be worked in subtly.
4 Begin in earnest
Finally, start creating! A garden cannot be created in one go. The seasons take precedence, deciding that you cannot buy this or move that. Big plants like trees better go in first. If they’re wrong, it’s not such a big job to move or remove them.
For example, I planted a flowering cherry. It grew and grew. It had few flowers and so-so autumn colour. Well, since those things were its job, I cut it down after five years and replaced it with Acer griseum, which is much more attractive.
I bought what I could afford, which was not much. I bought small and opted to wait. I haunted bargain corners and market stalls. I had to be creative because money was a huge constraint. The garden started in one corner and moved out from there. It was done in short bursts and not in a logical order.
So, you’re gonna write a story. But where to begin? You could start with chapter one. Or you could start with a major scene that’s itching to get from your brain to the page/screen. Start anywhere, just begin. The outline is there to guide you, so that even if the pieces are out of sync, they all relate to a proper whole.
How does that work? This is an example of mine.
I wrote the start of my novel (planted the cherry tree) out of order (when the time was right). After taking some advice I added more detail (let it grow). It looked better, but it still didn’t do its job of hooking readers (so-so result). I really wanted to keep it, but reluctantly took more advice.
I realised it was backstory (kill your darlings) and used it as such (put it through the woodchipper). I took the useful pieces and slipped them into the story (compost and feed). With a stronger root system, my subplots thrived and my story was more cohesive. I wrote and rewrote a new chapter one that is a hundred times better (the Acer).
5 Refine and revise
A garden is never done, but it can reach maturity. At the end of each season I cast my eye over it critically. Seeing what worked, what died, and where the gaps are is fertile material for the fun part; buying more plants. Sometimes I don’t have to kill my plant darlings, for they simply die. That’s okay. It means they were the wrong plant, or in the wrong place. If it’s in the wrong place, maybe I can replant it elsewhere.
Some things get too big, and need cutting back. Others can be divided and produce new plants elsewhere. Impulse buys are part of my semi-planned garden. I started with big permanent things, and fill in with this and that, anything that catches my eye. Others take a measured view, sticking closely to their masterplan.
A story must reach the end, and then needs revision and editing. Pruning away the excess reveals the essential. A small addition may contrast with a larger element and bring it into focus. Darlings must be examined and dealt with ruthlessly, though sometimes they can find another home, as I explained here .
The plotter sees everything unfold as planned. The pantser has room to wander within the boundary, seeing what happens. Both may have to perform radical surgery, if the whole is not more than the sum of the parts. Sometimes, other people can see more clearly what needs to be done, so take advice you trust.
You worked hard, so remember to enjoy your achievement. When the garden looks good, walk in it, photograph it. Most of all, sit in it and rest. Look at the sky, at the birds, at the leaf colours and flowers. Dream.
Few people manage to finish writing a story, fewer still an entire novel. When you have let it sit for a while, read it again. Better yet, if you have a Mac, use the text to speech and have it read to you. Maybe you’ll hear something that text editing did not catch.
But best of all, you get to experience your story in a different way, one that links us back to stories told around campfires and in caves, since man first learned to speak.
But gardening is different from writing…
Writing lets me forget the world and live in my dreams.
Gardening gets me out of my head, and grounds me in the real world.
Reading stories lets me share somebody’s head for a while and forget the world.